On this day in history, December 19, 1732, Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack was born – and the first issue published. Franklin included all the information that almanacs normally provide – sun rise, sun set, eclipses, weather predictions. But it was also one of those small things (or – not so small – but let’s just say that Richard’s Almanack couldn’t have done it on its own) that made the colonies into a community. The colonies did things for themselves. They were under the crown, but that feeling of being separate from the crown started very early (this due to geography, naturally, but the feeling of separation intensified into something more character-based, something more germane, later on) – and the almanac – with its listing of court dates, and town meetings, and church meetings, etc. – was part of that. It helped foster that. It helped spread information. It helped bind the colonies together. A benign thing, right? At first, yes. But you can see how that very sense of connectedness is what propelled the colonies into rebellion, when Massachusetts was singled out for punishment. What does Massachusetts have to do with Virginia? Or South Carolina? Nothing, on the face of it. They were separate entities. But it was the decision of the colonies to stand WITH Massachusetts and fight for her that started the chain of events leading to open revolution. Connectedness. Union. None of those things could happen on their own. Poor Richard’s Almanac was one of the ties that bind. It also shows that the colonies were self-sufficient, and rarely waited for the CROWN to do things for them. Franklin is, perhaps, the best example of this. He felt there should be public libraries. So he created one. He felt there should be a fire department, along the lines of what he had seen in London. So he helped create one. He was a community-builder of the highest order, God bless him. Things must be done. He did not look to others to do them. “Oh, someone should handle that…” was not in Benjamin Franklin’s emotional makeup at all. I love the guy. Of all “those guys”, he is the one I would have most liked to know. I’d like to sleep with Hamilton (I mean, obvi), but I’d like to hang out with Franklin.
Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography:
In 1732 I first published my almanac, under the name of Richard Saunders; it was continued by me about twenty-five years and commonly called “Poor Richard’s Almanac”. I endeavored to make it both entertaining and useful, and it accordingly came to be in such demand that I reaped considerable profit from it, vending annually near ten thousand. And observing that it was generally read, scarce any neighborhood in the province being without it, I considered it as a proper vehicle for conveying instruction among the common people, who bought scarcely any other books. I therefore filled all the little spaces that occurred between the remarkable days in the calendar with proverbial sentences, chiefly such as inculcated industry and frugality as the means of procuring wealth, and thereby securing virtue; it being more difficult for a man in want to act always honestly, as, to use here one of those proverbs, it is hard for an empty sack to stand upright.
These proverbs, which contained the wisdom of many ages and nations, I assembled and formed into a connected discourse prefixed to the almanac of 1757 as the harangue of a wise old man to the people attending an auction. The bringing all these scattered counsels thus into a focus enabled them to make greater impression. The piece, being universally approved, was copied in all the newspapers of the American continent, reprinted in Britain on a large sheet of paper to be stuck up in houses; two translations were made of it in France, and great numbers bought by the clergy and gentry to distribute gratis among their poor parishioners and tenants. In Pennsylvania, as it discouraged useless expense in foreign superfluities, some thought it had its share of influence in producing that growing plenty of money which was observable for several years after its publication.
Brilliant. And therein lies his particular brand of genius. It wasn’t “just” an almanac. It was written in a specific VOICE. From when he was a teenager, Benjamin Franklin loved to write under pseudonyms, but not just write – he loved to take on different characters. He would write op-ed columns, when he was just a teenager, and take on a whole different personality, writing as a long-suffering wife, for example, and these columns are so funny, so awesome – he truly INHABITS these different personalities. What a character. So he decided, “Okay, my almanack is successful. It provides the people with information they need – so let’s fill it out a bit – let’s put in some jokes, some quotes, some moral teachings …” And Franklin, who couldn’t be a moral bore if you PAID him, made it FUNNY. Yes, there are lessons for life, but none of them come off as preachy or didactic. You can go to church for that. He kept it funny, human, and yet ALSO educational.
Imagine if George Washington had published the almanack. Now he was an extraordinary character, but HUMOR was not one of his defining characteristics. Neither Hamilton. But Franklin, yes. He couldn’t suppress his humor on the rainiest of days. It makes him stand out. Additionally, he learned, very early on, that perfection was not possible. It saves him from being holier-than-thou. For example, as a young man, he decided to try to eliminate all of his sins. He even wrote a little chart in his journal, where he could check off when he exhibited this or that moral failing. He actually made it through a perfect week, where he committed no sins, and he felt a flush of pride about this. But Franklin, a perceptive and human gentleman, realized, suddenly: But pride is a sin. Even being proud about being good qualifies as a sin. His conclusion? Moral perfection was impossible. A worthy goal perhaps, but don’t kid yourself.
I love that anecdote – very very revealing, and something I think about often.
I remember my grandmother, Mummy Gina, had a huge illustrated Richard’s Almanack at her house that we loved to page through as kids . I can still see some of the illustrations in my mind. I remember very well the illustration for the proverb about visitors being like fish (they start to stink after a couple of days).
I love this website. Ha!!! Especially in light of the whole key on the kite thing.
Some of the proverbs from the almanac (he freely admitted that he did not invent many of these – they were passed down, or he would put his own humorous spin on them):
Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half shut afterwards.
After three days men grow weary, of a wench, a guest, and weather rainy.
Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.
Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.
Plough deep while sluggards sleep and you shall have corn to sell and to keep.
Have you something to do tomorrow? Do it today
There are no gains without pains.
The noblest question in the world is: What good may I do in it?
H.W. Brands writes, in his kind of lame biography of Benjamin Franklin (The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin):
Gazette readers intrigued enough to buy the bound version (priced at three shillings sixpence per dozen, obviously intended for resale) or the broadsheet edition (two shillings sixpence the dozen) were introduced to Richard Saunders, Philomath – a standard honorific for almanac-makers – by Saunders himself. “Courteous Reader, I might in this place attempt to gain thy favour by declaring that I write almanacks with no other view than the public good; but in this I should not be sincere, and men are nowadays too wise to be deceived in pretenses how specious soever.” Like the printer Franklin apologizing for the advertisement that gave offense to certain customers, Saunders confessed to monetary motives. “The plain truth of the matter is, I am excessive poor, and my wife, good woman, is, I tell her, excessive proud. She cannot bear, she says, to sit spinning in her shift of tow while I do nothing but gaze at the stars, and has threatened to burn all my books and rattling-traps (as she calls my instruments) if I do not make some profitable use of them for the good of my family. The printer has offered me some considerable share of the profits, and I have thus begun to comply with my Dame’s desire.”
Hahahahahahaha It’s a CHARACTER. It’s a VOICE. Franklin would have made a great playwright.
More from The First American:
As was apparent to the least attentive reader, Franklin thoroughly enjoyed adopting the guise of Richard Saunders. Where Franklin the businessman had to be circumspect careful not to offend, Saunders the almanacker could be outrageous – indeed, the more outrageous the better. Franklin as Franklin often had to hide his gifts to avoid inspiring envy; Franklin as Saunders could flaunt his wit, erudition, and general brilliance. In time – as his position in the community grew more secure – Franklin would no longer require Richard Saunders; till then the alter ego helped keep him sane.
Readers enjoyed Poor Richard as much as Franklin did. Copies were out the door by the single and the gross. In one year John Peter Zenger of New York (lately the defendant in a celebrated libel trial) took eighteen dozen in a batch, then another sixteen dozen. Louis Timothee (who now generally went by Lewis Timothy) in South Carolina ordered twenty-five dozen; Thomas Fleet in Boston also took twenty-five dozen. James Franklin’s widow, Ann, in Newport bought one thousand. These numbers hardly made Poor Richard the bestselling almanac in America; where Poor Richard sold an average of about ten thousand per year, Nathaniel Ames’s Astronomical Diary sold five to six times as many. But Poor Richard had a unique persona, and it developed a loyal readership.
While readers may have come for the quarrels Franklin provoked, they stayed for the advice he dispensed – and the way he dispensed it. Every almanac offered pearls of wisdom on personal conduct and related matters of daily life; that the pearls had been retrieved from other oysters bothered no one except perhaps the owners of those other oysters, who in any event had no recourse in the absencew of applicable copyright law. The trick for writers like Franklin was to polish the pearls and set them distinctively; in this he had no peer. What came to be called “the sayings of Poor Richard” first surfaced as filler on the calendar pages of the almanac the limitations of space, together with Franklin’s inherent economy, taught him to distill each message to its morsel. “Great talkers, little doers” broke no philosophical ground, but for pith it trumped nearly every alternative. “Hunger never saw bad bread”; “Light purse, heavy heart”; “Industry need not wish”; and “Gifts burst rocks” fell into the same category.
Sometimes succinctness yielded – slightly – to sauciness. “Neither a fortress nor a maidenhead will hold out long after they begin to parley.” “Marry your son when you will but your daughter when you can.” “Tell a miser he’s rich, and a woman she’s old, you’ll get no money of one nor kindness of t’other.” “Prythee isn’t Miss Cloe’s a comical case?/She lends out her tail, and she borrows her face.” “The greatest monarch on the proudest throne is obliged to sit upon his own arse.” “Force shits upon reason’s back.”
You can see how these sayings could cumulate into something akin to subversive thought (if you think like a monarch does).
Poor Richard’s Almanack is still in print today. Extraordinary.